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The University of Texas at Austin Awarded Grant from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Support Human Cell Atlas

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF (CZI), a donor-advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, recently awarded a grant to the University of Texas at Austin to support the work of Assistant Professor Danna Gurari. The project titled, “Video Analysis: Efficiently Tracking and Detecting Life Cycle Phase Transitions for Live Cells,” aims to design frameworks and systems that close the gap between computer vision (CV) algorithm and human performance for analyzing living cells observed in videos.


Gurari’s research is one of 85 projects chosen by CZI to support the development of the Human Cell Atlas. “If we can understand cells in a new way, we will be able to detect and treat diseases faster. The possibilities are great,” said Gurari.

Gurari explains that CV algorithms are primarily designed for analyzing visual information showing objects and activities familiar to people in their daily lives (eg. cars and walking). The requirements for analyzing videos of cells, on the other hand, are “unique and unlike those for observing typical visual information,” says Gurari. “Living cells can exhibit dramatically different appearances when observed with different types of microscopes, and some cell types undergo significant variation in appearance over short periods of time,” she continued. 

Funding from the grant will allow Gurari and her research team to design methods that track cell movement over time, and recognize the point at which cells transition to a new stage of life –from beginning phase (birth), to middle age phase (adult), to end phase (death). “The tools we build will help us identify the origin of parent cells, the trajectory of living cells, and the points at which cells transition through different stages of life,” said Gurari. Knowing the duration of cells in different life cycle phases is an important precursor for many applications including drug discovery, biomaterial creation, and tissue/organ generation.

The aim of this initiative is a global effort to map every type of cell in the healthy human body, and create a shared, open reference atlas of all cells as a resource for studies of health and disease. According to the CZI, the Human Cell Atlas will revolutionize our understanding of human anatomy and cell biology. “Working together and with our team of scientists and engineers, these partners will create new ways for scientists to use information about healthy and diseased cells. Their efforts will help to accelerate progress toward our goal of curing, preventing, or managing all diseases by the end of the century,” said Priscilla Chan MD, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “I am thrilled to welcome this distinguished group of grantees to the CZI family, and I am excited about how they will support the ambitious Human Cell Atlas effort.”

Dr. Danna Gurari teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, iSchool. Her research interests span computer vision, human computation, crowdsourcing, (bio)medical image analysis, and applied machine learning. In addition to Silicon Valley Community Foundation and CZI funding, Gurari received several other grants for her work. “CRII: CHS: Predicting When, Why, and How Multiple People Will Disagree when Answering a Visual Question” received a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Gurari also received a Lorentz e-Science Competition Grant to fund a five-day workshop on “Crowdsourcing for Medical Image Analysis,” a Microsoft Azure Curriculum Grant for computing resources for her “Introduction to Machine Learning” class, and gift funding from Adobe Research.